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80 of 87 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantstic novel about a dark, sepulchral, unsettling life.
What would life be like if it was meaningless, if the people we associated with were plastic? not real? pretentious? What if our life was just a hopeless void with loose morals, drugs, hollow sayings and beliefs? What if we just played the empty game of life as it was laid down for us? That is the main theme in Joan Didion's classic book that takes the reader into the...
Published on February 22, 2000 by Christian Engler

versus
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Never ask
"What makes Iago evil?" some ask. "I never ask."
The first line of dialogue from the zoned out protagonist, Maria Wyeth. I've always found it pretentious, but it describes Maria perfectly. Maria isn't curious. She doesn't ask. She's dazed and confused, and she plays it as it lays.
This book is as bleak and stark as the desert Maria circumnavigates in her...
Published on March 23, 2010 by Bibliofiend


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80 of 87 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantstic novel about a dark, sepulchral, unsettling life., February 22, 2000
By 
Christian Engler (Woburn, Massachusetts) - See all my reviews
What would life be like if it was meaningless, if the people we associated with were plastic? not real? pretentious? What if our life was just a hopeless void with loose morals, drugs, hollow sayings and beliefs? What if we just played the empty game of life as it was laid down for us? That is the main theme in Joan Didion's classic book that takes the reader into the life of Maria Wyeth, actress, mother, daughter, divorced wife, a woman who has grown tired and desensitized to the fakeness and pain caused by the Hollywood and Las Vegas establishment.It is a life filled to the brim with movie premiers, booze, pills, suicide, casual, empty sex, abortions and nothing else. It is a world of plastic surgery and beautiful people, of Let's do lunch and venomous gossip. The sneering, caustic tone of Didion's voice would want to make anybody who lived the lives of the novel's characters put a gun to their head and end it all. The language is stinging, fast-paced, lean, anti-Hollywood. Pure Didion!
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31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Deserts of Ennui, February 1, 2003
By 
J C E Hitchcock (Tunbridge Wells, Kent, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
There is, wrote Charles Baudelaire, a vice which is uglier, more wicked and filthier than any other, a vice which he called "L'Ennui". This is a stronger term than the mere "boredom" which is its literal meaning, because the word also implies a state of indifference and moral and spiritual deadness. It is a state of mind frequently invoked in Baudelaire's poetry, and one which is also at the centre of Joan Didion's novel.
The central character is Maria Wyeth, a Hollywood actress in her early thirties. Fate has, in many ways, been unkind to her- her mother died in a car crash, her career is in trouble, her marriage to an uncaring husband is also failing and she has a mentally-handicapped daughter. Maria reacts by retreating into the sterile world occupied by most of the novel's other characters, one of casual and promiscuous sex, drink, drugs and "Ennui", both in its literal and its extended Baudelairean senses.
Told in a series of very short vignettes, the novel traces the progress of the disintegration of Maria's life. She is bullied into an abortion by her husband. (It is interesting that a novel by a woman writer treats abortion not as a woman's right but as another weapon of male dominance). Her marriage ends in divorce. In the final scene her moral nihilism means that she deliberately fails to prevent the suicide of a friend.
Much of the book is set in the deserts of southern California and Nevada, and Maria spends much of her time driving on long but aimless car journeys through this landscape. The imagery of the desert is clearly used to suggest the aridity of the spiritual world in which the characters live, and Maria's meaningless journeys are a symbol of her inability to escape this world. It is noteworthy that although the book is set in the late sixties or early seventies, a time of great ferment and social change in America, news of the outside world plays virtually no part in the book; Miss Didion's characters seem able to shut it out completely.
The bleakness of the world inhabited by Maria and her acquaintances means that this is certainly not a feelgood novel. It is, in many ways, not an easy one to like. It is, however, certainly one worth reading.
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51 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Out there where nothing is, January 16, 2002
"Play It As It Lays" takes us to the rarified world of Hollywood and La-la Land, where life is fast, flat, and apparently as empty as the souls of some of its inhabitants. At the center of the book is Maria Wyeth, who at 31 is on the far side of the big 3-0 dividing line; orphaned when her parents are killed in a car crash, divorced from her film-director husband, the mother of a handicapped, institutionalized child, a sometime model and actress, who has become desensitized and remote from the pain of others to hide her own interior pain.

Maria has truly been "out there where nothing is" but instead of rejecting it, she has come to feel at home in it. The final nail in the coffin of her ability to feel is the abortion her estranged husband forces her to have to get rid of the child of her married lover; if she refuses, he will take custody of their own daughter. From that point, her life spirals downward into a haze of drugs, booze and casual, meaningless sex; communication with others is reduced to an interchange of one-liners; we wonder if this woman can feel anything for anyone any more. When Maria is able to calmly watch the husband of her supposed best friend destroy himself without lifting a finger to try to help him, we wonder is it because she is too lazy to call for help, or too detached to care.

Joan Didion's prose is as spare and as stark as the inner life of the character she writes about, and in simple but telling phrases she is able to convey to the reader all the pain and emptiness, and finally the viciousness, that passes for Maria's life. Maria will wallow in her own anomie and to hell with anyone who gets burned by contact with her. Is this payback? Maybe. Joan Didion lets us see Maria and her life in all its revolting nothingness, and makes us want to thank God it isn't ours.

Judy Lind
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfectly realized, May 23, 2005
Those who dislike this novel do so because it was successful at making them feel acutely the distress, anxiety, alienation, and detachment of the world presented. The writing is brillant: deep, thoughtful, many layered, and integrated. Still, this prose is bathed in acid and the superficial has been burned away: nothing is wasted other than the lives of the protagonists. She is among the most gifted and professional writers in the U.S.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Portrait of a life gone wrong, July 10, 2000
Didion is a definite "show not tell" author. She presents a series of fragmented snapshots, strings them together, then expects the reader to do much of the interpretation. The result: a grim, relentless, despairing mosiac of a life in the process of falling apart.
I have admired Didion's non-fiction ("White Album," "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," "After Henry") for her adroit use of language: her skill in putting together words that pack in a maximum amount of powerful imagery, the way her phrases implant themselves in my thoughts and remain there.
While "Play It As It Lays" demonstrates some of that same skill with language that is evident in Didion's journalistic work, I doubt that the story of Maria will cling to me like the stories of people from Didion's essays: the abandoned child on the highway, clinging to the cyclone fence, the neglected flower child rocking on a rocking horse.
A day after I read "Play It As It Lays," I wondered if I had dreamed it. Not so for Didion's non-fiction. In that case, I wondered if I had lived it.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Never ask, March 23, 2010
By 
Bibliofiend (new orleans, LA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Play It As It Lays: A Novel (Paperback)
"What makes Iago evil?" some ask. "I never ask."
The first line of dialogue from the zoned out protagonist, Maria Wyeth. I've always found it pretentious, but it describes Maria perfectly. Maria isn't curious. She doesn't ask. She's dazed and confused, and she plays it as it lays.
This book is as bleak and stark as the desert Maria circumnavigates in her purposeless drives across the freeway. Maria's husband is abusive, her daughter retarded, her friends creeps, alcoholics, and users. Things just happen to her. She gets pregnant. She has an abortion. Her best friend's husband commits suicide and by the end of the novel, Maria ends up in the loony bin throwing the I-Ching--a game of chance. Before you read this book, make sure you have a month's supply of anti-depressents on hand. You'll need them. Despite that, Didion's prose is compelling in its deadpan, anomic way.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Favorite Author, November 15, 2004
Joan Didion is the best contemporary writer I know. Good books are meant to be reread to reveal something new about the reader. I have reread this book at least 6 or 7 times and each time I "see" something different and insightful about Maria and her sad and tragic life. I'm still trying to figure out what is the attraction to this short novel. It must be the writing style that sucks you into the unfolding of a story of what could have been many women's life both now and then. I wonder too, as someone who was born after the book was writen, how representative it was of the decadence and wildness of the 60's. This book gives new meaning to T.S. Eliot's poem, "Hollow Men", although I think Maria expressed (or tried to in her own strange ways) the inner depths of herself throughout the book. I think there's something universal in that experience of being a thoughtful woman who seeks something real in life, but is really valued for her beauty and fleeting youth (which are all ephemeral). You can see that theme as well in "Valley of the Dolls", another recommended read.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Well written but highly unpleasant...., April 20, 2013
This review is from: Play It As It Lays: A Novel (Paperback)
I am quite sure this is a "book of outstanding literary quality" (from the back cover). I can see that. The writing style is reflective of the content. Skillful use is made of symbols and thematic motifs. It conveys the emotional impact it intends with great power. It was included in the Time's Top 100 list. I will long remember it.

And yet I didn't like it, not at all. I wish I had never read it.

This is the kind of novel that really cool and sophisticated people would like, people who applaud Charles Bukowski and Bret Easton Ellis. (Is it cool to use the term "cool" anymore? Probably not.) This is for people who enjoy reading "a scathing novel, distilling venom in tiny drops, revealing devastation in a sneer and fear in a handful of atomic dust" (also a quote from the back cover).

So if you think you would like to read a well written book filled with "venom" and "devastation" and "fear" and emptiness and aimlessness and despair, then this is the book for you. As for myself, I do not accept that this "captures the mood of an entire generation" (back cover again, writing of the 1960s). This was my generation, and fortunately, I did not know any of these people.

For those who might be interested, this is the story of Maria Wyeth, a sometimes model and sometimes actress, once married to a famous movie director, with an institutionalized child who suffers from some unnamed disorder, who deals with her very real problems by indulging in excesses of alcohol, drugs, indiscriminate sex, and driving very fast on the freeway.

To be clear, I would not have been disturbed by this novel as much if it had been less well done.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You'll never forget this one., May 22, 2009
This review is from: Play It As It Lays: A Novel (Paperback)
"Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily," wrote La Rochefoucauld. Joan Didion looks unflinchingly at the Void. "I know what 'nothing' means," says the heroine, "and keep on playing."

On one level this is a "Hollywood novel," and as such its wicked satire is worthy of comparison to Nathanael West's "Day of the Locust." Combine that book with Sartre's "Nausea" and you begin to get an idea of what "Play It As It Lays" accomplishes.

"We could definitely stand a few giggles," says one of the characters. You won't find any in this book. What you will find is a protagonist whose mantra might come from Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus": "Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it."

Grim stuff, to be sure, but brilliantly done. There is a great deal of white space in this book, because there are scores of short chapters, and because Didion has a rare quality: she doesn't write one word more than necessary. And what she writes will go straight to the core of your being.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unsentimental look at life, March 12, 2012
This review is from: Play It As It Lays: A Novel (Paperback)
Play it as it Lays (1970) by Joan Didion

When I finished Play it as it Lays a fictional scene flashed through my mind: I was on an airplane--and since I spent half my working life traveling, this is an easy vision for me to have--sitting in first class, aisle seat, with a well dressed woman at the window. We hadn't spoken for most of the flight. I finished Joan Didion's book, set it down, and she casually said, "How did you like it?"

Me: "I thought it was quite good. She writes like a man."

Slightly annoyed woman: "Oh, why do you say that?"

Me: "Sparse descriptions, punchy dialog, almost Lost Generation stuff, the Beats--life is meaningless. The main character, Maria Wyeth, wants and feels nothing--her life has degraded to pure nihilism. Didion's writing is completely unsentimental--no romanticism there."

Now irritated woman: "And you don't think women are capable of expressing that?"

Me: "Didion is obviously capable of expressing that because she did it, and quite well."

Still irritated woman: "But why do you see being unsentimental as a trait generally ascribed to men as opposed to women?"

Annoyed me: "Because I've never met a nihilistic woman in my life. They find meaning even if they have to make it up. All the women I've known are nurturers, in various manifestations, mind you, but if they can't mother their children because they don't have any, or their boyfriends, or husbands, or girlfriends because they don't have any, then they want to mother the world--save the gorillas, the polar bears, the children of Bangladesh or something. Men fall more easily into nihilism because many can't even save themselves."

Now grumpy woman: "Hrumph."

End of discussion. I think, "Almost every woman I know is in some way extraordinary. And Didion certainly is."

Now to the book: I won't offer a plot summary. There are plenty of them, e.g here; and it made Time Magazine's All Time 100 Novels. Her writing was heavily influenced by Hemingway, Henry James and George Eliot. Author James Dickey said Joan Didion was "the finest woman prose stylist writing in English today." The book is excellent--just bleak.

One of the things I really liked about the book was that Didion respects the intelligence of the reader. Early on, characters are thrown at the reader without much context and no descriptions. The reader gets bits of information throughout, but the dialog carries the story and provides the context as the story unfolds. You have to think, pay attention. You're well into the book when it starts to come together--when you begin to see what's at work. And you know this can't end well. Example of her writing (page 103):

"There's some principle I'm not grasping, Maria," Carter said on the telephone from New York. "You've got a $1,500-a-month house sitting empty in Beverly Hills, and you're living in a furnished apartment on Fountain Avenue. You want to be closer to Schwab's? Is that it?"

Maria lay on the bed watching a television news film of a house about to slide into the Tujunga Wash. "I'm not living there. I'm just staying there."

"I still don't get the joke."

She kept her eyes on the screen. "Then don't get it," she said at the exact instant the house splintered and fell.

And I thought this little bit about the post office added to the flavor of the book; this time from beyond her own making (page 166):

In the morning she went to the post office..."Could you put this on Box 674," she said to the clerk at the one open window.. 674 was the number on the envelope of Benny Austin's letter.

"Can't"

"Why not?"

"It's got to have postage. It's got to go through the United States mail."

Sullenly he studied the nickel and penny she gave him, then pushed one stamp under the grill and watched her stamp the note.

"Now could you put it in 674?"

"No," he said, and threw the letter into a canvas bin.

And page 169:

For the rest of the time Maria was in Las Vegas she wore dark glasses. She did not decide to stay in Vegas; she only failed to leave.

Page 210:

Carter and Helen still ask questions. I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is "nothing."

My final comments: So Maria is a depressed 31 year-old model, then actress, engaging in drugs, alcohol, casual sex, and meaningless long drives in her Corvette. She has an institutionalized daughter, has had an illegal abortion (this is the '60s; they're all illegal) arranged by her movie director husband Carter (it's not his) and ends up in a mental institution. She's a woman who has had complete freedom to chart her own path and this is the result of her life as a crap game.

I sometimes wonder about the notion that people who value independence and freedom--in many novels, anyway--almost always slide into a life of degradation. But maybe Maria Wyeth didn't value it; maybe it was just given to her and she couldn't handle it. I mean people are just as free to be and do good as anything else; and they learn how to cope with their flaws. We all have them. But this idea of the inevitable "slide on down," to quote Steely Dan, becomes an extension of the book: people can't be trusted to manage their own lives. I saw this in Franzen's book Freedom. People are weak, dysfunctional, shifting with the flow of influences outside themselves. They need help, rules, laws to live by, and if they can't do it for themselves then the hidden implication is, (1) we have to get back to our core pre-1960's values (organized and ruled by an evangelistic king perhaps) or (2) we have to have the state manage peoples' lives from any unacceptable consequences (run by a hopey changey messiah perhaps). I've known and know many people who don't buy this tripe. They are free, independent individuals who take responsibility for their choices and the consequences of them...who in a world with debased values, remember that which brings true meaning to their lives. And for them, it just isn't that hard.

To be fair, Didion never goes this far; she just lays it out in such a way that the reader--at least a reader like me who looks for extensions or ultimate consequences--sees the implications of what she describes: People are screwed up; they willingly do damage to themselves. Sometimes it kills them. Yeah, I've known a few. It is what it is.

And stories about people with their head on straight aren't as alluring.
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Play It As It Lays: A Novel
Play It As It Lays: A Novel by Joan Didion (Paperback - November 15, 2005)
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